The cold spell around Nine Wells

December 5th 2022 saw the start of a very cold fortnight in Cambridge. Temperatures rarely rose above zero, and fell to -11.3C early in the morning of the 15th; 10+cm of snow fell in the night of the 11th and stayed until the 19th. Ponds and lakes froze, and even the Cam had started to ice up by the 18th.

The lake in Hobson’s Park across the railway line was no exception. However the springs in Nine Wells continued to flow, and indeed on the coldest morning a misty steam rose from Hobson’s Brook. The area rapidly attracted the waterbirds that were displaced from the lake.

Snipe have always been occasional visitors but following the snowfall I counted five around Nine Wells and along the brook and nearby hedges. Little egret (right) and grey heron, more regular visitors, also appeared. Two new species to the site were more surprising: a couple of teal in the springs, while a family of five barnacle geese sought food in areas of the stubble field where the snow as less deep.

Other winter visitors flocked to the area – up to 200 redwing (below left and centre) thronged the hedgerows and shrubby areas, growing less timid as the cold spell wore on. This is more than I normally record around the site and more than were present immediately before of after the freeze began – it is possible that they were drawn by the presence of water, which may also have made adjoining areas slightly less cold. Good numbers of fieldfare (below right) were also present.

And one more treat lay in store on the 15th: another new species for the area, lesser redpoll, which called from one of the bushes along the brook.

For more about my study of the wildlife in the fields around Nine Wells, see my book A haven for farmland birds.

Reactions to ‘A haven for farmland birds’

I’ve been receiving some nice reactions to A haven for farmland birds. Mark Avery, former Conservation Director at the RSPB, wrote in his Sunday Book Review that:

‘The book is about farmland birds, that bunch of declining species whose overall numbers have more than halved in my lifetime and focuses on the author’s counts and observations in a small but rich area of the Cambridge green belt… One can’t help but like the author through reading his words – I did anyway. He is an enthusiast and part of the charm of the book is his growing knowledge, understanding and enthusiasm for the location and its wildlife. All field biologists tend to fall in love with their chosen study areas and species of interest – and quite right too!’

Duncan Grey, writing in Shelford Village News, commented:

‘Meed is a wise companion in a walk around the fields, showing us what we might otherwise have missed, explaining the changes of the influences of the seasons on bird feeding and migration and providing asides on everything from the history and geography to the migration of the albatross.’

I’ve also received encouraging feedback from readers, including ‘What a fascinating book’, ‘I never had imagined I could get so interested in grey partridges’ and ‘marvellous book’, while a former farmer commented that he ‘could not put it down’. Chris in Harrogate adds:

‘I have just finished reading your book – what an excellent achievement. I’m immensely impressed with your commitment, knowledge and expertise. I enjoyed the relating of your experiences as well as gaining a lot of knowledge about the birds and wildlife.’

I will be giving some talks about the book over the coming months: Friday, February 24th from 7pm in Rock Road Library, and September 25th to the Cambridge Local Wildlife Group. I have also prepared a video to accompany the book:

A haven for farmland birds is available from NHBS or my Bandcamp page.

New book and album

With the complications associated with Covid over the least 2+ years I’ve had very little news to share with you. But, rather like London buses (or possibly the last bus to Leeds), you wait for ever for an item of news, and then three come along at once.

Firstly, many of you will know that I am also a writer and researcher. I conduct ecological surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the RSPB, and the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Over the last ten years I have been surveying the wildlife in a group of arable fields in the green belt just south of Cambridge which provide a home for threatened farmland birds including grey partridge, corn bunting and yellow wagtail. I have learnt much about their ecology, why they are under such threat, why they flourish in the small area I study, and about their fascinating and comples behaviour, relationships and social lives. And I have just published a book, A haven for farmland birds, which describes what I have learnt. You can read more about it here and you can order a copy here.

Secondly, Rhys and I had long harboured the idea of revisiting some of my early songs live – just me with a guitar or piano – to reflect better how I play them now. During the Covid lockdowns a genuinely live album became impossible, so the closest we could get was to record each song in Rhys’s front room in a single take. And in the end we were even able to record The last bus to Leeds live at the Cambridge Folk Club this February. The ten songs are now available on a new album, ‘Almost live’. You can listen, order or download it from my Bandcamp page and I will have copies at my forthcoming gigs.

Talking of which, I have a very local gig on September 30th, organised by the friends of Rock Road library. It was originally planned for the library itself, but will now take place in the Friends Meeting House in Hartington Grove. This is a double-header with the String Section, and I will be joined by Lucinda Fudge (viola), Matt Kelly (violin and viola) and Rhys Wilson (guitar). Entry is free.

Back on stage

I hope you have been surviving the strange times we have lived through over the last two years. It’s been a difficult time for all involved in the music scene, but I’m especially conscious of the small clubs who have had to navigate their way through changing and often opaque restrictions while caring for the health and well-being of their audiences and performers. I have many reasons to be grateful for the support of Cambridge Folk Club over the years – they nurtured me through my early years as a performer and even enabled me to share a stage with the legendary Norma Waterson who so sadly passed away last month. And they rose to the challenges presented by the pandemic with their characteristic good humour and great competence, firstly running on-line Zoom concerts (of which a highlight for me was an unexpected star appearance by Boo Hewardine’s cat!!) and then experimenting with a different venue for social distancing purposes. All of this, I know, takes time, energy and commitment.

But they are now back in their usual venue and I’m therefore especially pleased that my first gig of 2022 will be at their showcase on Friday February 18th. Also playing will be two singer-songwriters who I hold in high esteem: Gary Woolley and Belinda Gillett. It takes place in the Golden Hind, 355 Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 1SP; the music starts at 8pm and tickets (£9) are available from the club’s website. Do check out the other gigs they have planned – the club deserves all the support we can give them.

Looking ahead to later in the spring, I have two church concerts planned for May in collaboration with Thursday’s Band: Saturday May 14th in St John the Evangelist, Hills Rd, Cambridge CB2 8RN ( and Saturday May 28th in St Mary’s Church, High Street, Ware, SG12 9EH at 7.30pm ( A third may also happen at the very start of May – you will be the first to hear!
It would be lovely to see you at one or more of these events; but I completely understand anyone who feels it may still be too early to venture out at this stage.
With my best wishes, especially for good health

Goodbye 2020

I don’t think any of us will be too sad to say goodbye to 2020. It has been a difficult year for everyone, and I hope you have been able to survive so far. Here are my annual musical reflections.

I managed a handful of gigs before the lockdowns started, though that all seems a very long time ago now! Thursday’s Band I played a lovely concert to a packed Stotfold Church (Bedfordshire) in February and with Mark Gamon’s help managed to film a new song, ‘Progress’, with Lucinda Fudge on viola and Matt Kelly on violin. You can watch it here:

After that the only scope for live music was Zoom and Facebook Live – not the real thing of course, but it helped to keep us slightly saner. Most of the concerts I have taken part in (and helped organise in the case of Cambridge Acoustic Nights) are still available online – there are links on my gigs page.

Despite all the problems there has been some really good new music this year. Here are some of my favourites:

– Adrianne Lenker’s ‘
– Juliana Barwick’s ‘

– Swedish duo I Break Horses’ ‘

– Harpist Mary Lattimore’s ‘

– Scottish/Lancastrian band Modern Studies’ ‘

– Yorkshire group The Howl and the Hum’s ‘
– The sensational ‘Kick‘ from Spanish Love Songs

It’s been a tough year for musicians – the absence of their usual revenue from live concerts leaves music sales as their main source of income. So please consider buying music direct from the artists (I have given Bandcamp addresses where possible), or from independent record shops, rather than streaming via Spotify et al who pay artists virtually nothing.

Away from the music, it’s been a difficult year for us personally, as indeed for so many people. We lost both my sister and Isabelle’s mum in the autumn – indeed the two funerals took place just a week apart. I gave a tribute to my sister which you can read here.

I did at least have more time for my ecological survey work. If that interests you, there are more details here.

Here’s hoping that once enough of us are vaccinated (my 94 year-old mum has just had her first one) live music will once again become more feasible and that we’ll perhaps be able to share a real concert before too long. And here’s wishing you as good a festive season as will be possible in this so unusual year, and good health for the year to come.

My sister Catherine

At the start of 2020 my sister Catherine was diagnosed with a return of a cancer that we thought had been cured four years ago. The doctors were not able to find a treatment that could help her, but she bore the pain and discomfort with great patience. She died on October 31st. Here is the text of the tribute I gave at her funeral on November 16th.

My very first memory is of a newborn Catherine coming home from hospital with our mother, Beryl, to the terraced house on the Spotland Road in Rochdale where we lived while the vicarage was being prepared. It was in Rochdale that we learnt that Catherine would go through life with learning disabilities. As I grew older, and after we had moved away from Rochdale, I became conscious of the prejudice that disability could provoke – but as school friends visited our house, Catherine’s gentle kindness and her joyful happiness helped them to see that disability was not something to be feared or laughed at, but something that brought its own love, strengths and specialness.

Catherine has had a profound influence on me. I have learnt much from her and a friend wrote how ‘she seems to have a kind presence’ in me; I hope that is true. I’ve had messages from friends across the country, and even Australia. Catherine loved it when my university friends came to stay and Pam, widow of my best friend Dave, wrote: ‘Cathy was a lovely soul. I remember her singing and happiness when we visited you.’

After moving to the village of Felsham in Suffolk with our parents, Beryl and Harry, Catherine’s influence spread through the community. I have been conscious going through the messages we have received that people in the village clearly loved her and also, to quote Beryl’s friend Elizabeth, her own ‘deep sense of security, knowing she was loved’. The vicar, Sharon Potter, described how ‘it has been a privilege to be involved with Catherine’ while Richard Stainer recalled ‘such fond memories of Catherine’. A special memory for many is caught by the former vicar, Simon: ‘her spontaneous, enthusiastic joy and shrieks as she skipped up and down the aisle before a service’. She also enjoyed theatre visits with Beryl, especially to the opera and above all the ice cream during the break!

Stowmarket Community Hub became a central part of Catherine’s life. Team members there recall ‘Catherine’s beautiful keyboard playing and her willingness to take part in a variety of activities both at the Hub, the local leisure centre and out in the community’. At the time, ‘Catherine was the only learning disabled person ever to be accepted into the Stowmarket Art Club and have four paintings on show at the annual art exhibition at the URC church in Stowmarket. Her landscape of a poppy field was accepted by the Town Council.’ Her remarkable self-portrait is on the right.

Roy, for many years her key worker, describes how her artistic talent stood out: ‘Her ability was always there and, in time, she developed a confidence and style all of her own, enhanced by the transition from working on paper to canvas. She was always happy, choosing whichever subject she wanted to work on, never worried about trying something a little more challenging, applying herself with her usual patience and eye for detail. The results speak for themselves, her legacy, a remaining source of pleasure and amazement, not only for myself but for everyone involved at the time. An inspiration.’

Over 20 years ago a vital new chapter of Catherine’s life opened as she moved to Combs Court. I have become increasingly conscious over recent times of just how much Catherine was loved and valued by everyone at Combs – and also of how much she enriched their lives with her kind, gentle sunshine. When Beryl broke her leg in Cambridge in 2017 it was the ever-helpful and capable Catherine who tidied the hotel room and did the packing – and when we asked her where she wanted to spend the night she made it clear she wanted to return to Combs. So I’d like to close by quoting some moving words from Wendy, who stood close beside her throughout her illness.

‘Catherine was a kind, loving person and her artwork was amazing. She will be a great loss to us all and we will miss her dearly. We are one big family with a hole in our hearts now.’

Beryl requested that one of my songs, ‘Tenderness’ be played at the funeral. Here it is:

Goodbye to 2019

It’s slightly scary to see that another year has slipped by, though I’m not sure we will lament the passing of 2019. Here, anyway, are my annual musical musings.

‘Never enough’, which we launched at the end of last year, has been well received. I seem to have been busy playing gigs through the year – the highlight was the inaugural Royston Folk Club Summer Shindig on the August bank holiday weekend, where Matt and Lucinda joined me on violin and viola and we had a lovely welcome from the audience – including some who had travelled from Oxford and Milton Keynes! There is a video of us playing La Fayette live here – all in evocative black and white.

And I have several gigs planned already for next year. I’m particularly pleased that my friends Thursdays Band I have at least three more church concerts to look forward to: on February 16th in Stotfold, near Hitchin; on February 29th in Ashwell, near Roystom (though this one is to be confirmed); and if your church would like such entertainment to help with the restoration fund, do let me know. We really enjoy playing unplugged with the acoustics that churches provide.

Our trip to India and Nepal in April opened the flood gates of my songwriting and, after a barren year, I have eight new songs – several inspired by our experience there and also a new song inspired by my home town of Rochdale – which I’m currently testing out on long-suffering audiences. Rhys and I are starting to turn our attention to reworking some of my older songs for a retrospective album as well so 2020 promises to be busy.

Thankyou for your continued support. And may I wish you Happy Christmas and all the very best for 2020.

Insurgent empire, by Priyamvada Gopal

When the Scottish explorer John Rae was posted by the Hudson’s Bay Company to arctic Canada, he very quickly recognised just how much he had to learn from the Cree and Inuit peoples about traveling and surviving in the hostile climate he would face. When Rae was tasked with finding what had happened to Lord Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage, his trust in and respect for the local people led him to accept their account of the expedition’s fate, which he repeated in his own report. In so doing, Rae drew condemnation from the British establishment – including Charles Dickens, who found it unimaginable that Rae had ‘failed’ to make the 10-12 day trek across the Arctic wastes to verify the story of ‘mere natives’.

So it did not come as a total surprise to me to read – in the second chapter of Priyamvada Gopal’s excellent book Insurgent Empire – that in the Jamaican uprising of 1865 Dickens had sided with the English governor, Eyre, who had ordered a brutal repression of demonstrators and the murder of a local politician. It did, though, come as some shock that a number of other supposedly progressive Victorians – including John Ruskin – had also supported Eyre. And by contrast, the Positivist thinkers Congreve and Harrison, bêtes noires of my university days, had taken the side of the anti-colonialists. The first part of Priya’s book shows how – when it comes to the Empire and colonisation – our Victorian ancestors were not always what we might expect.

I first met Priya through political activism. We were both involved in Campeace, an anti-war movement, at the time (if my memory serves me well) of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and later in supporting the student protests in 2010-11. I have always been impressed by the balanced, thoughtful way in which she speaks, and seize any opportunity I can to hear her talk in and around the university. I am proud to call her a friend and mentor, and had been awaiting the publication of Insurgent Empire with some anticipation.

Insurgent Empire focuses on specific moments of rebellion against British colonialism, and so John Rae does not feature in its pages. However, it is interesting that Wilfrid Blunt, the focus of Chapter 3, also saw himself as a student of a colonised people, in this case the Egyptians involved in the upraising of 1882. And this is the first key lesson of the book – that there was very much a two-way interchange between insurgents in the colonies and radicals in Britain – that terms like ‘liberty’ were not ‘gifted’ to the colonised, but forged in dialogue and eventually taken in struggle: indeed ‘the resistance of the periphery helped radicalise sections of the metropole’ and ‘ideas of freedom’ distinct from those of the free market economy were able to ‘make their claims heard’ (p448).

The second key lesson of Insurgent Empire is to challenge the extent to which people are obliged to accept the conventional wisdom of their time. Wilfrid Blunt is just one of a series of fascinating characters who came to see that behind the prevailing image of a benevolent empire lay an altogether different picture of aggressive self-interest and oppression. These people were able to unlearn the accepted view of empire – Blunt would eventually comment on how Britons were expected to ‘fall down as a nation and worship our own golden image in a splendid record of heroic deeds and noble impulses’. Others would go further and argue – perhaps a third key lesson – that British working people had more in common with those oppressed in the colonies than with their own ruling classes.

As Insurgent Empire moves into the twentieth century there is a change of focus. While many of the nineteenth century activists were British people who travelled to the colonies, recognised what was really happening, and fed this in to the debates at home, as the twentieth century unfolded activists from the colonies such as the Trinidadians C L R James and George Padmore increasingly came to London and became involved in – and often leading lights in – the struggle against colonialism. Priya’s characters, as she comments in the interview below, recognised their ‘moral responsibility’ to ally themselves with ‘those who are at the receiving end of inequality, exploitation and violence’.

Priya creates a highly original style of history writing – she interweaves brief but nonetheless gripping outlines of the rebellions and the oppression that inevitably followed with the human stories of those who were moved, challenged and radicalised by them. In the process we learn more both about the events themselves, and the lessons they may hold for us today.

Insurgent Empire makes an important contribution to understanding the British colonial past. At a time when myths of empire once more weigh upon current events – from curriculum design to the UK’s relationship with Europe – it becomes ever more pressing to imagine new ways in which we can learn from the past, separate myth from reality and move beyond feelings of pride or shame. We need to recognise both the realities of imperialism – and how fundamentally it helped to create the current world order – and the ways in which resistance in the colonies and in Britain interacted and helped to challenge the imperial project. Insurgent Empire offers some crucial pointers about how we – as activists, educators or citizens – can do this.

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal. Published 2019 by Verso. ISBN 9781784784126

La Fayette

Here is the video for La Fayette, taken from my album Never enough. It features Matt Kelly (violin), Lucinda Fudge (viola) and myself at the Royston Folk Club Shindig in August 2019.

I originally began the song on a December early evening in Paris. I had arrived with time to spare for a Eurostar, and spent a few minutes wandering around the always interesting streets close to the Gare du Nord. I noticed someone standing in a doorway on the Rue La Fayette who was to prove the inspiration for the song.

My train was a little delayed, and while the business people were busy with their laptops and mobiles, I was quietly singing the first lines of the song into a microphone.

The remainder of the song emerged from my imagination, albeit under the shadow of Le Pen over France, though it rapidly became equally relevant to the EU referendum in the UK, the election of Trump in the US, and the rise of the right generally around the world.

La Fayette himself was a French aristocrat who commanded troops in the American war of independence before joining the French revolution as commander-in-chief of the National Guard. While a street in Paris is named after him, there is not in practice a Place de La Fayette – however that fitted better with the feel of the song.

You can download the song from my music page.

The Peak Everest school in Bhital

During our recent stay in Nepal we visited the Peak Everest primary school in the village of Dhital, in the Machhapuchhre Rural Municipality, 16km from Pokhara. The school is set in a stunning location, with the Annapurna range behind it.

Somnath Poudel, the Principal, showed us round the classrooms. The school has eight classes and 120 students. The rooms were small and dark and while the early years had carpets the older children did not. The classroom walls were bare. There was no glass in the windows and in winter it must get cold.

Some classes are taught in English at the request of parents. There are four 45 minute classes in the morning and four in the afternoon. Subjects included social studies, mathematics and Nepali. Somnath’s commitment, passion and sense of mission were striking. He has a clear vision of what he can do to help his community, and the energy and enthusiasm to confront the many difficulties he encounters. Inspirational indeed.

We also met students walking to or from school for books (it was the new year holiday) who said they enjoyed school. Most of the students are from low caste, Dalit or Hill Dalit families – some are orphans living with their relatives. Many students are from low income family backgrounds and cannot afford the necessary things such as stationery materials, clothes etc.

Some teachers lived in the local villages but others in Pokhara – a 2 hour journey, by bus and on foot. After the school we stopped for a while at the bus stop – as local people arrived it became apparent that the bus itself stopped on the road 400 metres below us, and that this was a resting point before or after the steep climb down or down.

It was all a million miles from our own local primary schools in Cambridge – the school was very short of resources like pencils and we thought we would see if we could find some way to support the dedicated people working there. In my subsequent correspondence with the Principal, he explained that the school’s most pressing need is to provide school lunches. He comments that some students arrive at school without lunch, or with junk food, and that this leads to problems of nutrition >and concentration.

We have made an initial contribution to the lunch programme, which the Principal comments has allowed them to buy a cooking stove, gas canisters, and some cooking and eating utensils. We hope to make further contributions ourselves, and possibly in addition by fund-raising and/or a benefit concert. I attach the school’s Lunch program proposal – if you would like to help in some way please message me.

Lunch program proposal